WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- It is late on a Saturday night, too late to make the news on the TV networks or most Sunday papers. Only a skeleton crew of reporters is on hand as Bob Dole tests new lines on several hundred Indiana Republicans.
"There's been a lot of talk about the word vision in this campaign," he tells the party faithful. "Well, I think the trouble with President Clinton is he has double vision. He says one thing one day and something else the next day."
His speech wins generous applause, lifting the senator's spirits for the late-night flight back to Washington and buoying his beleaguered campaign staff.
Few people are watching, but Dole may be starting to find his voice as he attempts to define his own "vision" and delineate the differences between himself and Clinton.
Responding directly to critics who say he's failed to articulate clearly why he wants to become president, Dole used a speech to a GOP fund-raising dinner Friday night on Long Island, N.Y., to lay out the rationale for his candidacy.
"I want to be president," he said, "to return integrity to our government restore the vigor of the American economy restore an instinct for decency to our national life restore America's strength of purpose in the world, and restore the strong defense that is needed to support it."
Just how he would do all that remains to be set forth. But Dole has an answer for that, too.
"You read that Bob Dole doesn't have his agenda," he said to Wall Street Journal columnistPaul A. Gigot last week. "I hope not. We don't want it in April. We'd like to have it for July, August, September and October."
Some Republicans would like to have it sooner. They believe Dole's difficulties in explaining where he'd lead the country have left voters uncertain as to why they should boot Clinton out of office and replace him with Dole.
That uncertainty may be one reason Dole trails badly in the polls. He's 21 percentage points behind Clinton, according to the latest Gallup survey. No presidential candidate who was that far down at this stage of the race has ever won.
Candidates are uneasy
Republican leaders insist it's far too early to throw in the towel. But others, especially GOP officeholders who expect to be sharing the ballot with Dole this fall, are growing restive. Their party's likely presidential nominee needs to get his act together soon, they say. And many are zeroing in on that word "vision."
Rep. David M. McIntosh of Indiana is still waiting for the Dole camp to come out with "a clear vision and plan" for the campaign, and the country. "I think they've got two or three more weeks, and then we've absolutely got to have that in place," he adds. "Frankly, time is running out."
"Dole has not caught fire with the grass roots," says Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland. "Dole's campaign has yet to formulate a message, a coherent philosophy. [Voters] are going to be less than enthusiastic about him if he doesn't."
Dole campaign aides have heard the complaints and are working hard to come up with an agenda for the fall election.
It's a problem similar to the one candidate Bill Clinton's advisers were grappling with at this point four years ago, when they were reshaping his campaign near the close of a bruising primary season.
Looks slow off the mark
Because Dole wrapped up the nomination unusually early this time around, and because the White House is already operating in all-out campaign mode, the campaign has begun sooner than ever.
One result has been to make Dole appear slow off the mark.
Most Americans won't start paying attention to the campaign for months, but many Republicans, including party chairman Haley Barbour and Dole's own strategists, believe their man needs to start closing the gap with Clinton before the national convention in August.
"The message is crucial," says Steve Merksamer, a senior Dole campaign adviser. "Bob Dole has to go out and make a compelling, coherent presentation to the country as to why he wants to be president."
Dole concedes he's no match for Clinton as a communicator, and there are still rough spots in his presentation.
At one point, straying from the outlines of his text in Indiana, Dole tried to explain "what this election is all about."
"It's not really about me. It's about who I am, and where I'm from, and what my values are," he said.
That's not nearly so lame as his declaration, to a rally on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, that "like everyone else in this room, I was born."
Or his remark, at a Republican National Committee gathering last summer, that "I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that's what you want," which made it appear as though he had no deep-seated beliefs of his own.
The fact is, however, that despite almost half a century in politics and four national campaigns, including three tries for the presidency, Dole remains uncomfortable with the notion of spelling out exactly who he is and where he would lead the country.
"If I get elected, at my age, you know I'm not goin' anywhere. It's not an agenda. I'm just gonna serve my country," he told his biographer, Richard Ben Cramer, in a revealing interview last year.
The Senate majority leader, who turns 73 this summer, is a problem solver and a legislative magician, not an ideologue or visionary.
In his words, he's "a doer, not a talker."
But if what it takes to get elected is painting a picture of what Bob Dole's presidency would be like, well, Bob Dole seems willing to try.
"We stand for less government, lower taxes, flatter taxes, more freedom and a strong, proud America at home and abroad," he said Friday night, taking another stab at defining himself.
His campaign aides, meantime, are developing a two-pronged message for the general election.
One part consists of a series of conservative initiatives that Mr. Dole will unveil over the next few months.
The centerpiece, according to a campaign official, is likely to be a call for a cut in income tax rates, which Dole is expected to present in a major economic speech later this spring.
An overarching goal, aides say, is to try to paint Clinton as a liberal, in hopes of swaying a large, and potentially crucial, group of voters who currently perceive him as a political moderate.
Toward that end, Dole has begun sharpening his attack on Clinton, criticizing the president's judicial appointees as too liberal, his refusal to deploy a missile defense system as dangerously weak and his veto of the so-called partial birth abortion ban as a sign that he's an extremist on abortion.
Dole is also reminding voters of the tax increase Clinton pushed through Congress in his first year in office, as well as his vetoes of the Republican balanced budget and welfare reform plans.
The second part of the Dole strategy is a renewed push to tell the senator's life story, not only because it is a compelling one, but also as a contrast to Clinton, whose personal character continues to trouble many voters.
Dole campaign officials say they have been surprised to discover from their polling that most Americans don't know the basic outlines of the senator's life -- including his upbringing on the hardscrabble Kansas prairie and the severe injuries he suffered in World War II, which left him with a crippled right arm and shoulder.
"Very few people have yet to understand the real Bob Dole or hear the Bob Dole story," says New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill, his campaign chairman.
"Bob Dole needs not to panic. He's got to remember that Michael Dukakis was way ahead and George Bush was way behind at this point in 1988."
Pub Date: 5/05/96